Advice for Doing Difficult Interviews

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Jun 27, 2008 en Journalism Basics

First of all, it's always best to interview friendly sources first. The person with a complaint will often be a friendly source, because he or she wants attention. Perhaps there is an NGO or an expert with some perspective on the problem. Try to get as many sides to the story as possible before approaching your difficult source. That way you can say, “Many people are complaining to the media about ___. I want to get your side of the story.”

Think ahead of time about the shape and focus of your interview: what would you like the person to talk about? If it is something you expect will be difficult, think about how to approach the topic. Plan to ask one or two easier questions first: something neutral and factual. For instance (if you are at their worksite): “Could you describe exactly what you do here?”

Most people don’t have a problem describing their jobs, so this helps relax the interviewee and establish trust. It also helps to be conversational and to show you are really listening: you can reply to an answer with, “Really? That’s interesting. I didn’t know…”

Before the interview, take a minute to make a list of your questions, in the approximate order you would like to ask them. But don’t feel like you have to follow this list during the interview. It’s just something to help you plan the interview, and often you won’t look at it at all. If the interview is going well, you won’t even need to look at it.

When you begin the interview, be sure to explain before the interview how it will be used, on what program, etc. This is important for people who haven’t been interviewed often. Also explain that you will edit the interview, so if they need to start a thought over again, they can.

Start the interview by asking them to state their name and profession.

It’s important to actually BE interested in what the person is saying. If you are looking at your notes or equipment, or just thinking about the next question, the interviewee will sense your disinterest.

Finally, you can’t avoid difficult questions. It’s your job to find out information and various viewpoints for your listeners. You can say, “I have to ask you, of course, about this…” Or even better, “I want to get your side of the story. What happened?”

Sometimes a person will ask you to turn off the recorder. Ask, “are you sure?”, but if they insist, you must comply with their wishes. However, if they then tell you something very interesting, tell them how much more compelling it would be on tape. You can say, “I work in radio. Voices are everything. If your voice isn’t in the story, your side won’t be represented as well. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind saying that on tape?” However, if they still won’t talk on tape, be sure to find out whether this information is completely off-the-record or whether you can use it without attributing the source.

Unfortunately, it IS true that radio is a voice-based medium. It’s very awkward to say, “sources, who did not wish to be identified, say…” It doesn’t sound right on the radio. Often I find that material that I don’t have on tape never makes it into a story just for this reason.

A good way to end an interview is to say, “Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to say?” Sometimes people have nothing to add, but sometimes this can open the door to the best material of your entire interview.